FEARFUL AND FRUITFUL
26 Now an angel of the Lord said to Philip, “Rise and go toward the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” This is a desert place. 27 And he rose and went. And there was an Ethiopian, a eunuch, a court official of Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, who was in charge of all her treasure. He had come to Jerusalem to worship 28 and was returning, seated in his chariot, and he was reading the prophet Isaiah. 29 And the Spirit said to Philip, “Go over and join this chariot.” 30 So Philip ran to him and heard him reading Isaiah the prophet and asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?” 31 And he said, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” And he invited Philip to come up and sit with him. 32 Now the passage of the Scripture that he was reading was this:“Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter and like a lamb before its shearer is silent, so he opens not his mouth. 33 In his humiliation justice was denied him. Who can describe his generation? For his life is taken away from the earth.” 34 And the eunuch said to Philip, “About whom, I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?” 35 Then Philip opened his mouth, and beginning with this Scripture he told him the good news about Jesus. 36 And as they were going along the road they came to some water, and the eunuch said, “See, here is water! What prevents me from being baptized?” 38 And he commanded the chariot to stop, and they both went down into the water, Philip and the eunuch, and he baptized him. 39 And when they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord carried Philip away, and the eunuch saw him no more, and went on his way rejoicing. 40 But Philip found himself at Azotus, and as he passed through he preached the gospel to all the towns until he came to Caesarea.
— Acts 8:26-40, ESV
I became a Christian in college and joined a traditional Southern Baptist church. It was a very busy congregation, but I didn’t mind because I wanted to be with my fellow Christians every time the doors were opened. I thought the feeling would be mutual, but it was not.
Sunday School was great, but fewer people attended than were present in the morning worship service. There was a Sunday evening service, too, with less than half the people who attended in the morning, and half again less at Training Union before the evening service. On Wednesday nights we gathered for prayer and Bible study, but the crowd was smaller still. Monday night was Visitation, a time designed to pair up and go out and witness for Jesus. It was by far the smallest gathering of all, attended by only a small fraction of the church membership.
I’ve learned through the years that sitting through hours of church meetings doesn’t necessarily make one a good Christian, no more than sitting in a garage can turn you into a fast car. Furthermore, program-driven churches often produce more Pharisees than faithful followers of the Lord. But, I’ve also learned the least favorite activity of the typical Christian is sharing the gospel of Jesus Christ with another person. We love to come in and sit, while we hesitate to go out and share.
The foremost reason is raw fear. Most of us are afraid of making any kind of public speech or personal presentation. Most of us are afraid we lack the knowledge and ability to be an effective witness to unbelievers. Most of us are afraid of the rejection or possible anger from the person we attempt to reach. We are just downright fearful.
But God has called us to be fruitful. We are to bear fruit in keeping with our faith and repentance. We are to share our faith with others and admonish them to repent, believe, be baptized, and follow Jesus. We are to keep the great commission given to the early church to bear witness for Christ in our own uttermost part of the earth.
So how do we overcome our fear and be fruitful for the Lord in the area of witnessing to others? Let’s ask one of our church deacons to help us. Philip, show us how to do it.
A Fruitful Evangelist
If you are afraid of sharing your faith with others, and you read this account of Philip and the Ethiopian, you may become even more afraid. You might say to yourself, “I could never be like Philip and walk up to a stranger and tell them about Jesus.” Relax, you are not Philip and you may never be called upon to witness to someone in this dramatic manner.
One of the biggest mistakes we make in interpreting and applying the Bible to ourselves is trying to make everything normative. Almost all of what Jesus did, I could never do. Almost all of what the Apostles did, we don’t have the gifts to repeat. Philip’s successful evangelistic excursion in Gaza is something none of us will likely experience in our lifetimes.
Philip was an exceptional person. He was the second deacon ever ordained in the church. He and his co-laborer, Stephen, were given the same, exclusive, sign gifts God gave to the Apostles. He had the ability and opportunity to speak with an actual angel who gave him his assignment. He was a Hellenistic Jewish Christian, so when he encountered a Greek-speaking Jewish proselyte, reading a Greek text of the book of Isaiah, he knew what to say and do. Let Philip be Philip, you be you.
Philip was in an exceptional place. He was a religious refugee, chased out of Jerusalem by persecution, found in Samaria by providence, and called to the desert by an angel of God. He caught a chariot on the stretch from Palestine to Africa occupied by a man reading the Messiah-centered prophet Isaiah, in the most Messianic-rich part of the scroll, who wanted to know the Messiah. He was the man, he had the plan, the Eunuch never stood a chance. Praise Philip for being Philip, you be you.
Philip performed an exceptional service. He led a man to Christ who, according to early Christian historian Irenaeus, led a country to Christ, as many Ethiopians formed another early church, as a result of Philip’s courageous, obedient, witness for Christ. Celebrate Philip for being Philip, you find a way to be you, as a witness for Christ.
The fact of the matter is you and I will never have it so hard, nor so easy, as Philip. We are not first generation Christians facing first century persecution. We are not called, except for the true international missionaries among us, to leave the comforts of home to take the gospel to strange lands. We will seldom find a person sitting alone, reading the gospel, begging someone to tell him about Jesus. It was like catching a fish in a bucket. Let Philip have his fish, you find your own.
A Fearful Christian
While so much of what happened here is an extraordinary evangelistic event, there are some ordinary Christian things that Philip possessed and accomplished. We should pay attention to these things and seek to ensure they are in us. They can turn our fearful attitudes about witnessing into faithful and fruitful encounters.
Philip had a heart of faith. His heart had been renewed by the Holy Spirit, by the grace of God, through faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. A genuine conversion to Christianity cannot be hidden from others, because the same Holy Spirit who converted you lives within you. If you spent five minutes with Philip, the first thing you would have known about him is that he was a Christian, that Christ came first in his life. Since Jesus was the most important person in Philip’s life, Jesus was the first person Philip talked about when he met other people. We shouldn’t be afraid to talk to others about the most important person in our lives, either.
Philip had an ear for God. Of course, it is pretty easy to interpret a message from God when it comes to you in the form of an actual angel. I’m sure God spoke to Philip in other ways, too, especially in his many moments of prayer. A praying Christian is not just someone who speaks to God, but one who listens to God as well. Prayer is not a monologue or a wish list, it is divine and direct dialogue with a person who actually lives within every Christian. Nothing calms our fears like talking to and listening to the Lord.
Philip had an eye for people. He could tell the Christians from the non-Christians, and loved them both. His radar detected a non-believer showing interest in the gospel, and he honed in. Christians should not be judgmental but we should be discerning. We should be willing to witness to any unbeliever any time, but we should pay special attention to those who demonstrate any type of interest in God and the gospel. Knowing God is always drawing people replaces our fear with anticipation.
Philip had a mind for Scripture. He devoted himself to the word of God and the gospel of Jesus Christ. He was especially familiar with the book of Isaiah, and when the moment presented itself to discuss it with an unchurched person, he was ready. All Christians should regularly read their Bibles and be a part of a Bible believing and teaching church. We don’t have to use scrolls like they did in the first century, we have deluxe editions of both testaments with study notes to boot. When we get into the word of God, we gain confidence over our fears, and the gospel of Jesus Christ comes out of us.
Philip had access to power, the same power any normal Christian today possesses. It is the power of the Holy Spirit (ref. John 16:8) and the power of the Word of God (ref. Hebrews 4:12) and the power of the gospel (ref. Romans 1:16). Power relieves pressure and fear. It is not up to us to convert people to Christ, but it is our responsibility to bring Jesus Christ to the people. The Ethiopian Eunuch needed someone to guide him, as do the lost and unchurched people around us today.
Finally, Philip had fear, too. It is normal, for any Christian, to be fearful when it comes to sharing your faith with others and inviting them to Christ, to Christianity, to Christ’s church. But it is also normal for a true Christians to be faithful in putting Christ first, caring about others, and sharing the gospel. When faithfulness overcomes our fear, we will become fruitful for the Lord Jesus Christ, like Philip.